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Brain-controlled third arm lets you take your multitasking to the next level

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By Luke Dormehl


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For whatever reason, some seriously smart folks in the tech community seem to be obsessed with adding extra appendages to the human body — and they’re getting more ambitious all the time. First, it was the 3D-printed functioning extra thumb prosthesis, made by a graduate student at London’s Royal College of Art. Then, it was the robotic Double Hand, dreamed up by augmented human startup YouBionic. Now, researchers from the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan are taking the next logical step by creating a robotic third arm that will allow its wearers to take their multitasking ability to warp speed. Oh, and did we mention that it’s mind-controlled, too?

“Instead of a robot arm system, I would call it, a [brain-machine interface] (BMI) system for multitasking,” Christian Penaloza, a researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “Traditional BMI systems are used mostly to recover or replace a lost function of a person with a disability, but not to enhance the capabilities of healthy users. Common BMI systems require the user to concentrate on a particular task, such as controlling a robot arm or wheelchair, while the body stays still. That means that the user can only do a single task. Due to the current limitations of BMI systems, it is more convenient for healthy users to use their own bodies instead.”

brain machine interface japan third arm prosthetichandbrain
Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory, ATR

What the researchers at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute have developed is a brain-machine interface with a focus on multitasking. The robotic arm used in their demonstration is controlled via two electrodes which are stuck on the user’s head in order to capture their brain activity. Without requiring a person’s full attention, it’s possible to control the arm to carry out certain feats. That means that users can engage in one task while carrying out a second hands-free task simultaneously.

“In our experiments, we used a human-like robot arm for participants to grasp a bottle, while they did a different task [of] balancing a ball,” Penaloza continued. “[In terms of real-world applications] we could think of future use cases for this particular system, such as future construction or manufacturing workers who can use a third arm to increase their productivity, or even astronauts in space. However, the applications do not have to be limited to a robotic arm. Perhaps in the future, we could use the system to control other devices — household devices, cell phones, or machinery — while we do another task.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Science Robotics.


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